In-car touch screens have grown bigger and more important over the years. And with more and more systems installed there, I was eagerly waiting to see a leap in quality. Better looking, more engaging menus, sharper, cleaner and more intuitive home screens to use, and systems that require the least amount of attention.
This, unfortunately, did not happen. Rather the opposite. With more features, there is now more clutter. There are more hidden menus, features are often hard to find, and sometimes even stopping and looking closely doesn’t get you far.
Concrete example, the Maybach GLS 600, where on a recent record, I just couldn’t figure out how to turn off the heads-up display. I tried menu after menu and location after location, but just couldn’t find it. After a while, I gave up. Then, frustrated, I tried the voice prompt. “Hey Mercedes… turn off the heads-up display,” I called. And then, to my surprise, the answer came back: “Disable heads-up display”. It worked! I was thrilled and was driving at the time.
The problem of complexity is one that fighter cockpit designers have grappled with for years. Previously plagued by too many “steam gauges” or a vast array of dials, today it is “cockpit glass” problems and too much information reaching you at the same time. And imagine having to touch a touchscreen with precision while flying upside down, while keeping an eye out for an opponent. Is it any wonder that sports fighters first had head-up displays? And they have another system – HOTAS (Hands On Throttle and Stick), which looks a bit like a modern Ferrari steering wheel, where all buttons and knobs are placed directly on the steering wheel, so you don’t need to take your hands. .
There are other things automotive display designers can learn from flyboys. Step number one is decluttering. Then, it is essential to have a well structured and intuitive menu system, where it is easy to find things. And finally, voice commands can prove invaluable once quality levels improve.
In fact, using Apple’s Siri is now both the easiest and most secure way to make a phone call from your car. And doing it with Google or Alexa is just as easy. Apple’s CarPlay, however, stands out as the best-thought-out, cleanest, and clearest automotive screen-based interface to date. Large icons and large fonts mean you rarely aim and miss on the move, the menu is clear and easy to navigate, and Apple has even built security systems into many of its features. I can’t wait to see the improved version of CarPlay which is just around the corner. And isn’t it time for car manufacturers to step up and create their own thoughtful interfaces? Audi and VW are some of the best, but there is still a long way to go.
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